Macedonia debates being a country

A new front has opened up this week in the new cold war between liberal democracy and populist nationalism, with a constitutional crisis in the Balkan nation of Macedonia.

Regular readers will be ahead of the game, having read my two reports on last December’s parliamentary election. Briefly, the two major parties shared most of the vote of the country’s Slavic population (about two-thirds of the country), with the incumbent centre-right party, VMRO-DPMNE, narrowly ahead of the opposition Social Democrats, 51 seats to 49.

The remaining 20 seats were shared among four smaller parties, all primarily representing the country’s Albanian community, which is mostly concentrated in the north-west and amounts to about a quarter of the population.

Centre-right leader Nikola Gruevski, in power since 2006 (although there had a been a caretaker government in office just prior to the election), had campaigned strongly on the basis of ethnic – that is Slavic – nationalism and against the claims of the Albanian minority for greater influence. No doubt his nationalism was sincere, but it was also an attempt to divert attention from the corruption scandals that had plagued his government and led to the early election.

With neither major party able to command a majority, the centre-left opened negotiations with the Albanians and last week reached agreement. On Monday, Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev was able to hand president Gjorje Ivanov the signatures of 67 MPs, a clear majority, and was therefore entitled to be designated as prime minister.

But Ivanov, a VMRO-DPMNE loyalist, said no. The idea of a government beholden to the Albanians had aroused opposition from demonstrators in the capital, Skopje, and also from the Russian government of Vladimir Putin, in its self-appointed role as guardian of the Slavic peoples.

Ivanov said that the deal threatened “the sovereignty and integrity of Macedonia.” The Albanian parties want Albanian recognised as a second language throughout the country; it was probably a tactical error that they drafted their demands in Albania with the help of the Albanian government.

The Balkans might seem exotic, but the logic of the nationalists is familiar[link added] It’s the same as has been used recently by the hard right in Israel against the country’s Arabs, and in Britain against the Scots. The state, it is asserted, does not belong to all its people equally: one ethnic group is privileged, and what matters is who wins a majority among that group. So a government that relies on an ethnic minority to be able to govern is illegitimate.

This is dangerous stuff. Telling minority citizens that their votes don’t matter is a step down the road to ethnic cleansing. There has already been one armed insurrection among the Albanians in 2001, although compared to other parts of the former Yugoslavia it was a fairly mild affair.

More than anything, countries troubled by ethnic tension need a scrupulous adherence to the rules of democracy. Zaev has a majority, so he should be allowed to form a government.

The European Union has been firm on this point, with its foreign minister Federica Mogherini travelling to Skopje and calling on the president to reverse his decision. But the EU’s leverage is limited – although Mogherini pointedly associated the head of NATO with her remarks – and for Gruevski a centre-left government could easily mean prosecution and imprisonment.

For populist and nationalist forces elsewhere, Macedonia is an ideal cause. The Albanians tick all the (wrong) boxes: Muslims (most Macedonians are Orthodox), anti-Russian, backed by the EU and standing up for parliamentary democracy. L. Todd Wood in the Washington Times offers a particularly unhinged example, blaming everything on the machinations of George Soros.

Fortunately, there’s no sign yet that Donald Trump has interested himself in the issue: United States policy, evidently running on autopilot, has continued to support democracy. But it’s one more place in which the Europeans might find themselves having to do without American help.

One of Trump’s supporters has weighed in, in decidedly undiplomatic fashion. Conservative (and one-time libertarian – what is it with these people?) Republican congressman, Dana Rohrabacher of California, last month told Albanian television that “Macedonia is not a country.” He suggested that the ethnic Albanian areas should just join Albania or Kosovo, and the rest could be added to Bulgaria.

This isn’t a crazy idea; until the Second World War, the idea of a separate Macedonian ethnicity was not widely accepted. But although they speak much the same language, the Macedonians have evidently come to think of themselves as quite distinct from Bulgarians – nor is there any suggestion that Bulgaria would want them.

The surest way to encourage separatist feeling among the ethnic Albanians, however, is to treat them as second-class citizens. If Macedonia wants to be accepted as a real country, it needs to uphold democracy and bring the Albanians within the tent.


8 thoughts on “Macedonia debates being a country

  1. I think it was only because Bulgaria picked the wrong side in WWI that they were kept apart from their linguistic peers in Macedonia when the lines of Europe were redrawn at the Paris Peace Conference.

    But that’s history. This is a disturbing abuse of power by the Macedonian president. The president’s role is supposed to be ceremonial.


    1. Yes David, I think that’s right. If Bulgaria had got the region in 1919, probably no-one would think there was anything wrong. But by 1945 they’d developed a separate identity.


    1. Not sure Gavin – that’s quite possible. I can’t remember a case of a majority not forming government, but majority governments were definitely deposed by coups in 1987 and 2000.


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